What do Bhutanese mean when they say to serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum?


The central message in the concept of Tsa-Wa-Sum is to serve the larger interest of the nation and the people by the leaders and the people alike.

“What is your ambition?” asked the teacher.

Almost every student through primary, secondary to high school in Bhutan will reply “I want to become a teacher and serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum.” 

Replace the 'teacher' with 'doctor' and 'engineer' and you will have pretty much the entire class’s envisioned career. I was no different. 

Growing up, I was a bright student and an aspiring teacher and later a doctor — when I was made to believe every topper should aim to be a doctor or an engineer — with the thirst to serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum after graduation. It’s a different story now that I'm a digital marketer by profession and a talk show content creator by passion. Nevertheless, the desire to serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum in my own little ways still stood the test of time and remains the same. 

And I can say with certainty that somewhere deep within every civil servant, corporate employee or private employee harbours the same desire. 

So what is the concept of Tsa-Wa-Sum that is culturally instilled in every Bhutanese?

‘Tsa-wa’ means the main elements and ‘Sum’ means three in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. Thus, Tsa-Wa-Sum is said to be a socio-political concept used as three primary elements of Bhutan. The three elements as per the government’s rules are the King (Druk Gyalpo), the Country (Druk Gyalkhab) and the Government (Druk Zhung) of Bhutan. However, the three elements are also said or considered to be the King (Druk Gyalpo), the Country (Druk Gyalkhab) and the people (mitser) or the King (Druk Gyalpo), the Government (Druk Zhung) and the people (mitser). 

Irrespective of what the three elements are, the main gist remains the same. When it’s said to be king, country and government, the people become part of the country and when it’s considered king, country and people, the government comes under the king. Similarly, when it’s considered king, government and people, the origin of all three is the country. 

To the Bhutanese, the king is like the father of the nation and the leader of the government working towards the people’s happiness and the nation’s prosperity and security. Meanwhile, the country is synonymous with a mother that nurtured the forefathers, rearing the present generation and fostering the future. 

As an organization with foot soldiers to implement the plans and policies based on His Majesty’s guidance and wisdom, the government plays an integral part in developing the country. To work collaboratively with the government, the people’s efforts are essential. This makes the concept of Tsa-Wa-Sum of significance to the kingdom and its people.  

As such, when we say ‘serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum’, we mean wholeheartedly dedicating our service to the King, Country/Government and the Citizen/people of Bhutan. It is a greed-free pledge to work hard and shoulder the responsibilities by being truly determined, committed and purpose-driven in making the kingdom stronger by achieving the overarching national goal of self-reliance.  

In the early days, everyone saw joining the civil service as the ultimate means to be of service to the Tsa-Wa-Sum. Every Bhutanese would study hard till class 12, apply for a scholarship, go abroad for undergraduate, return home and appear for the coveted Royal Civil Service Examination (RCSE) to secure a government job. While the majority still follow this path and appear for the RCSE, over the years, the idea that you can also serve the king and the government while being self-employed and working in a private sector has taken a stronghold, especially among the younger generation. 

The central message in the concept of Tsa-Wa-Sum has always been to serve the larger interest of the nation and the people by the leaders and the people alike. The pandemic period put the pledge to the test.

His Majesty the King toured the country to guarantee the safety of the people, and the government along with the Desuups (Guardians of Peace) worked day and night. Monetary donations from millions by big corporations and businesses to a few hundred by individuals were made to the King’s Kidu Fund as part of COVID-19 relief measures. Even Bhutanese abroad didn’t forget their homeland and did their share to support the country. Farmers provided vegetables to the government for quarantine facilities.

In these unprecedented times, Bhutan and its king, government and people came together proving that Tsa-Wa-Sum has been and still is an ensured sacred and vibrant bond between the king, country and people of Bhutan that underlies the king’s selfless service to his people and the people’s unquestionable loyalty to the king and the country.

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